Issue Twenty Nine

CHASING FALL

Teacher. Student. Friends. Adventure.

WORDS & PHOTOS x Leilani Bruntz

13 December 2017
Part One

Ms. Welch

She was only 22 years old, just a few years older than me, and no matter how young, hip and relatable, she was my teacher. For my freshman year of high school, I transferred to Vail Mountain School, a private K-12, where Spanish instruction begins in Kindergarten. Between my lack of exposure to Spanish and my utter lack of affinity to learn the language, I landed a seat in Ms. Welch’s remedial Spanish class.

Ms. Welch passionately implemented a “Spanish only” rule. Despite her casual demeanor, youthful energy and evident passion for the outdoors, I wasn’t a fan of this “Spanish only” thing. Frustrated by the challenge to understand the most basic of conversations, I could have never imagined where the two of us would be twelve years down the road.

Since graduating from the rigorous, yet intimate school, (my graduating class was just 21 students), where outdoor recreation was ingrained in the curriculum, I’ve gravitated to opportunities that push me to discovery – physically, introspectively and geographically.

Bikes break all kinds of barriers. They allow us to get from point A to point B. They bring people of all kinds of professions, ages and interests together. And for me, Ms. Welch became Betsy.

Ms. Welch and I reconnected last summer on the Steamboat Ramble Ride, a three-day gravel ride from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs in Colorado. Each day we found ourselves pedaling at the same pace, endlessly talking. We shared past adventures, discussed our ideal lifestyle, and solved the world’s problems mile after mile. We could have kept pedaling and kept sorting through each of our lives forever, but upon arriving in Steamboat Springs and ultimately finishing the ride we agreed to partner up again for a trip in the future to continue where we left off.

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Part Two

The Colorado Trail

A year later, we managed to find a six-day window in mid-September. The week was shaping up to offer either peak aspen foliage or snow-buried trail. We took our chances and planned a route that linked mining roads, pack trails, and sections of the pristine Colorado Trail. We would ride through Leadville, Aspen, Crested Butte and Buena Vista affording the flexibility to modify our route as needed, and easy re-supplies. I was comforted by the familiarity of each town, though the route we would travel through to get to each town was unfamiliar.

Hail greeted us atop Hagerman Pass, kindly reminding us that the cold was settling in. The weather didn’t faze us though as we were making good time. A blissful and colorful descent to Ruedi Reservoir, topped off with a convenient water fill from a nearby campground, and day one was rolling right along.

We retired for the day, already excited for the fresh coffee and warm breakfast waiting for us in Aspen. The thick pine blocked us from having any views for the night, and unsure of our exact route out, it felt like we were far off the beaten path. Should we return from where we came and re-route, or gamble with our orienteering skills on the disappearing trail?  We managed to find our way through terrain that sees little to no use to the doors of Gucci and Dior welcoming Aspen’s rich and famous, and us.

Only a day and a half into our trip, and 24 hours without seeing another human or sign of development, I found myself irritated by the traffic in Aspen. Just hours earlier, I was dreaming of the breakfast I’d eat and the food I’d resupply with in town. The drastic juxtaposition of the backcountry “trail,” and the high-end ski town was too much to handle. We deliberately planned to ride through towns, significantly lightening our load, yet it felt burdensome having to switch gears from the quiet and less traveled areas we would come from. A tasty, but rather small-portioned breakfast, quick sink rinse and two to-go sandwiches later, and we were on our way.

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Part Three

Towns

Pearl Pass, where some would argue is the birthplace of mountain biking (I know … some say it was Mt. Tam in Marin), connected us from Aspen to Crested Butte. It’s a place I’ve heard stories of from when my parents were Jeeping aficionados. They explored terrain all over Colorado in my Dad’s custom painted matte camouflage Jeep, compliments of my Mom’s artwork. After winching the Jeep over rocky, steep terrain they saw “mountain bikers” on modified Schwinn bikes for the first time. Not long after, they entered the sport themselves, and decades later they introduced me to it.

My introduction to cycling began when I was 13 with an ad in the Denver Post for Ride the Rockies, a six-day bike tour, with an ever changing route through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  I recruited my dad (which didn’t take much effort), who then bought me a bright yellow steel 650B Felt road bike, on which we pedaled nearly every pass of paved road in Colorado over the course of eight summers. My skinny tires grew knobs, some extra width, and eventually all the weight to sufficiently bike tour independently.

Some have claimed that Crested Butte has the best food of any ski town. This presented a dilemma. Just the day before we were irked by civilization. Did we really want to give in to the temptation? Inevitably the “pit stop” turned into an afternoon of indulging, which turned into an overnight stay at a friend’s house. She tempted us with wine, homemade soup, great company and a warm place to sleep for the stormy night ahead. Maybe going through towns on our adventure was a good idea after all?

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Part Four

History

We ate our Teocalli burritos on the side of the gentle railroad-grade climb from Pitkin to the Alpine Tunnel above the historic mining town of St Elmo. We picked wild raspberries for dessert, and enjoyed the colors that had quickly changed from the prior night’s storm.  Reading the interpretive signs, we learned it was the first tunnel built through the Continental Divide in the late 1800s, and the highest tunnel constructed at 11,523 feet.

Pedaling away from the restored telegraph station on the remaining railroad tracks, we eagerly approached the Alpine Tunnel and were grateful for the gateway through the mountain. Apparently we missed the sign describing the closure, and we arrived to a filled-in hole. There was no rolling through, so we pushed our bikes to the summit.

I stood on the top and peered south towards White Pine. I picked out the picturesque trail winding down from Tomichi Pass, reminiscing about the many times I’d ridden Canyon Creek, my all-time favorite high-alpine trail. Rather than buzzing in anticipation for one of the most fun descents around, I was struck by the history of the area. Colorado’s rich mining history has a way of showing itself in many of my favorite places – remote, exposed and often high-alpine terrain. Threatening to hail again, it was hard to imagine life in these harsh environments, surviving and working with the limited resources of the 19th century.

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Part Five

Peaks

The Colorado Trail bridged the final stretch of our loop with gold aspen foliage lining the trail and Colorado’s highest peak beckoning us.  It had been a tough day of riding the day prior, pushing 80 miles primarily on singletrack. It was one of those rides where the relentless uphill was never appropriately reciprocated with a deserving descent. The idea of ditching the weight to ride Mt. Elbert was too tempting, knowing that what goes up must go down.

I could have packed lighter. The battery chargers were not necessary. The amount of “emergency food” I packed in fear of going hungry was almost enough to survive off for the whole trip. The coffee set up … no, that was worth it. What else was excess? We threw out our thumbs to hitch a ride between Buena Vista and Twin Lakes. Our route inevitability had us riding the highway due to the wilderness terrain where bikes are banned. My lightened load ultimately helped me get through what was the longest and hardest day for me. No matter how tired I felt, I was not able to turn down the opportunity to ride one of few 14ers open to bikes.

To my surprise most of the trail was rideable, or maybe it was the 280 miles of pedaling with loaded down bikes prior that prepared us well. Finally giving in to the relentless switchbacks and thin air for the final push, I threw my bike over my back, smiling from within. This is what I live for – being in the high alpine, where the air is thin and the views are endless. Mountains stand proud in all directions, calling my attention and piquing my interest for more exploration. At 14,439 feet, I celebrated my partnership with Betsy.

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Part Six

Lessons

From touring the dramatic and remote Cordillera Huayhuash Range of Peru, the steep, rocky and raw trails of Virginia, the pristine high alpine of The White Clouds in Idaho (before we lost access to the newly designated wilderness boundaries) and eventually a laid back desert escape on the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona, I’ve left with lessons. While the year in Ms. Welch’s classroom feels like a lifetime ago, my appreciation for learning has evolved.  Languages are still not my strong suit, but I have grown to love a good challenge.  And now, looking to the future, the Colorado Trail feels like an achievable feat for me.

The End
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